Saturday, July 7, 2012

Let's talk about violence

One of the first of countless casualties in The Wild Bunch

"...I feel totally great and fine in saying that in real life I have a major problem with violence, that I do think our society is too violent, but I have no problem going to a film and seeing violence on the screen." 
-- Quentin Tarantino

"When people talk about violence in cinema, it's like talking about cheese on pasta; it sort of comes with the dish." 
-- Brian De Palma

Let's take a cue from Mr. De Palma and discuss violence a bit, shall we? It's something that's going to come up again and again in this blog (in fact, I already touched on it a bit in my first few entries), and there are a few things I feel I should get out in the open. I recently watched the special edition DVD of The Enforcer, and one of the special features was a documentary featuring various filmmakers and film historians frankly discussing the pros and cons of cinematic violence. It was an interesting show, and it got me thinking about my views on the subject. First of all, let me say that I am in no way, shape or form a violent person. In general, I'm what you would refer to as a bleeding heart liberal (if you want proof, see the post immediately prior to this one). I've never been in a real fight, I've never raised my hand in anger against anyone, I despise war and I'm against capital punishment and solidly in favor of gun control. Despite all this, I find myself watching a lot of violent movies. All you have to do is look through a list of some of my favorite films - Taxi Driver, The Wild Bunch, Apocalypse Now, Drive, A Clockwork Orange, Alien, Dirty Harry, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Once Upon a Time in the West and countless blood-drenched horror films you've probably never heard of - to see that violence is an integral part of my film diet. In my view, many of the most interesting and intriguing films also happen to be the most violent. How can this be? How can such a mild-mannered person as myself derive pleasure from watching brutality take place on the screen? Well, it's complicated. You know, like life.

A reluctant execution in Army of Shadows

In my mind, there are different types of screen violence. First of all, there's violence that's supposed to be ugly, that's supposed to repulse the viewer and demonstrate to them how horrible violence really is. This is what I consider to be, more or less, realistic violence. You'll find it in many of the films of Sam Peckinpah, or Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, or Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, or Jean-Pierre Melville's L'armée des ombres (Army of Shadows). When you watch a violent sequence in one these films, it's the filmmakers' intention that you should be sickened by it. In many cases, the characters in the films who perpetrate the violence are sickened by it as well. It couldn't possibly be argued that a well-adjusted person would view these films and get the idea that violence is a positive thing (although that hasn't stopped a never-ending stream of pundits from trying to do just that over virtually the entire history of the cinema). At the very least, it's shown to be repugnant but necessary. Melville's film contains an incredibly powerful scene in which members of the French resistance during World War II reluctantly kill an informer who would otherwise give them away to the Nazis; the necessity of doing it quietly and cleanly means that they have to strangle him, and it's absolutely excruciating to watch, despite the fact that it's not at all graphic.

With that being said, many of the violent sequences in these films are nevertheless filmed and presented in a way that is visually and cinematically exciting. Scenes like the Normandy invasion in Private Ryan or the opening and closing gun battles in The Wild Bunch are horrifying, yes, but there's no denying the fact that the bravura expression of sheer cinematic technique utilized in these sequences is thrilling in its own right, and is somehow artistically divorced from the content itself. In short, it's possible to admire them even as you're appalled by them. (By contrast, the rape/murder sequences in Last House on the Left are filmed so dispassionately and with such a lack of flourish that they become practically unbearable to watch.) The argument has been put forth that these films somehow condone violence merely by presenting it, but the idea that exhibiting violence in a graphic manner is tantamount to condoning it seems ludicrous to me. Film is no different than other forms of art. If I look at Picasso's Guernica and say "Goddamn, that's an amazing painting," does that mean I think it's OK for fascists to bomb a town full of women and children into splinters? Of course not. Cinematic violence of this type can justifiably be referred to as an artist making a statement about society. 

Steven Seagal wants to talk to you about your behavior

Another type of screen violence, which is somewhat more problematic, is the type that isn't supposed to turn us off. It's the kind we're actually supposed to, well, enjoy. It's heroes taking out villains by any means necessary. It's Charles Bronson blowing away a scumbag rapist, or John Rambo using an explosive-tipped arrow to detonate a Vietnamese soldier, or Steven Seagal kicking the living shit out of a terrorist. It's violence that's supposed to elicit a cheer from the audience, or a giggle, or at the very least, a satisfied sigh. This is the type of violence that worries some people, and to a certain extent, I can understand why. The violence in these films is presented as less consequential, or even inconsequential. In most cases, we aren't shown the bad guys' pain at any great length, or the grief of their loved ones (if they have any; more often than not, they exist in a vacuum), or the circumstances that made them the way they were. The filmmakers aren't interested in those things, nor are we supposed to be, and as a result, those on the receiving end of this "righteous" violence are dehumanized.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (my daughter said he screamed like a girl)

Of course, the antagonists in police dramas and action movies are often presented as unrepentantly evil to begin with, and that is, in my opinion, the key to being able to enjoy these films without feeling too guilty about it. These aren't characters; they're caricatures, and sometimes it's nice to visit a world in which everything is black and white (in a moral sense). In the documentary I mentioned earlier, screenwriter Shane Black says something to the effect of "It's fun to see the bad guy get blown the fuck out of his socks," and I tend to agree. As I write this, I'm preparing to take my nine-year-old daughter to a theatrical screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. She might be a bit young for it, but it's a rare opportunity to see this classic film on the big screen, and I want to take advantage of it in the hope that it will help kindle a love of film in her (much the same as it did for me). I was discussing with a relative whether or not I'd need to cover her eyes at the climax, when Belloq and the Nazi villains are gruesomely obliterated by the Ark, and he remarked, "Well, they deserve it!" That sums it up right there. Movie villains always deserve it. There's no doubt that they've committed their crimes; hell, we've seen them do it, and we've got the film to prove it! This absolute certainty squelches many of my moral reservations about seeing them wiped out. Speaking of Raiders, has the scene where Indy shoots the sword-wielding baddie ever failed to elicit an uproarious laugh from the audience? Like it or not, sometimes violence is just fucking hilarious! (I did end up letting my daughter watch the end; she remarked that the melting Nazi "screamed like a girl," and later, we discussed how the effects were accomplished.)

Riverdance this is not - Ryan Gosling in Drive

Some filmmakers do try to have it both ways. In Nicolas Winding Refn's stunning crime film Drive, Ryan Gosling's unnamed character commits some intense acts of violence in the course of protecting a young mother and her son from vicious gangsters. While his motives may be good and pure, he's obviously got some issues of his own, as evidenced by the extreme methods he uses. In Drive's most infamous scene, when confronted in an elevator, he repeatedly stomps on a thug's head until it resembles a pancake, and both the woman he's protecting in the film and we the audience are left in dumbstruck silence by his sheer ferocity. Or, there's The Matrix, in which we witness Keanu Reeves blowing away dozens of bad guys who, as it turns out, aren't even real. As much as I hate violence in real life, I have to admit I love watching it in movies of this ilk. The trick is to realize that they're just movies, and this sort of violent response to evil rarely works in the real world.

If I haven't said much yet about violence in horror films, it's because they're a different animal altogether. Horror films are specifically designed to confront us with our own mortality, and as such, the representation of violent death is an intrinsic part of their DNA. While it's entirely possible to make an effective horror film without explicit violence, since the late 1950s, these more subtle attempts at horror have increasingly been the exceptions to the rule. Horror films do often showcase violence as something ugly and reprehensible, as in Craven's Last House, but it's just as often presented as a visual spectacle, even more so than the action films referenced above. Horror fans watch these so-called "body count" films not only to be scared (if that even happens) but also to revel in the meticulously gory creations of special effects artists. We watch them for the specific purpose of seeing people dispatched in various messy ways, and we don't really care much about them at all. Of the thousands of characters who've been graphically butchered in horror films over the last five decades, many are often even greater ciphers than many of the action movie villains. The disposability of these victims is exacerbated by the fact that a good number of these horror films are low-budget affairs, with substandard writing and acting that don't do much to endear the characters to us. Violence is the raison d'être of these films; if you remove it, they're essentially pointless.

Alessio Orano delivers the coup de grâce in Lisa and the Devil

Again, there are quite a few exceptions. Neil Marshall's The Descent gives us a group of characters we grow to care about before they're plunged into a subterranean nightmare. We're terribly frightened for them and horrified by their brutal, ghastly deaths. We also root for them as they turn the tables on their subhuman tormentors and bring the pain back to them. Near the end, we're conflicted when one of them turns on another in retaliation for an earlier transgression; we understand, but we don't necessarily agree. Ultimately, we're emotionally shattered by the downbeat ending. Other horror films, while they may have their share of bloody moments, transcend these gruesome scenes and become truly exceptional films due to the sheer artistry on display. Mario Bava's 1972 horror masterpiece, Lisa and the Devil, features a number of grotesque murders, including a man who is run over repeatedly by a car and a half-dressed woman who is bludgeoned to death, but the film is so elegantly made and achieves such a remarkable, dreamlike quality that the violence doesn't seem as grotesque as it should. Other filmmakers play the violence for laughs, as in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II. The gruesome dismemberments and popped-out eyeballs in Raimi's sequel to/remake of his own Evil Dead (which was a far more serious film) are famously inspired by the physically abusive comedy of The Three Stooges.

Whatever its context or presentation may be, violence in the cinema has been around since the very beginning, and it's not likely that it'll be going away anytime soon, despite the fact that many people would like it to. There's a group of people who seem to think that getting rid of violent movies will make our society less violent. That's patently absurd. While there are certain damaged individuals who may latch on to a violent film and find inspiration in it, is preventing everyone from seeing it really the answer? Won't these people just find something else that will set them off? One could argue that violence should be allowed in films if it has artistic merit, but who decides which films qualify? Ultimately, violent films are a reflection of our society as it is now. Perhaps someday, if and when we evolve to the point where we stop killing one another, these movies will become passé. While I'd love to live in a peaceful society, going to the movies in such a utopian world will sure be a hell of a lot more boring.

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